Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Senator Feinstein Advocates for Solar on Private Land; Addresses Bureaucratic Process

In a letter to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed dismay with the slow Federal Government permitting process for solar projects proposed for private land.  In the letter, the Senator points out that renewable energy projects in California proposed for BLM (public) land benefit from a speedy permitting process, while projects proposed for private land languish because specific government agencies do not share the same commitment to a speedy process as much as BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Energy Commission (CEC).

This bureaucratic slow down could dissuade more energy companies from developing on private land, which is likely to be of less significant biological value and have less impact on the Mojave Desert. Particularly because energy companies are hurrying to complete certification before the end of the year so they can qualify for Department of Energy sponsored loans.

So what administrative road blocks are slowing down the permitting process for development on private land?

If you are an energy company and you propose building on BLM land (which is more likely to impact sensitive desert habitat), the California Energy Commission will work with Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM to quickly prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS).  The EIS is a prerequisite to having the project approved, assuming the EIS determines that the impact on the desert can be mitigated.  The Department of Energy, which will issue the government backed loans to the company, will accept the environmental review process led by the BLM, which serves as the lead agency for public land cases.  The Department of Energy cannot issue the loans until an acceptable environmental impact statement is completed.

If an energy company proposes development on private lands, the lead agency for the environmental review process will be the Department of Energy in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.  However, the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot begin the environmental review until the Department of Energy (DOE) takes up the application. Apparently the Department of Energy has been slow to take up private land development applications, perhaps waiting for the CEC approval.

Abengoa Solar project proposed development on disturbed private land west of Barstow and has been slowed down by the DoE.  Abengoa contacted Feinstein's office for support, probably resulting in her letter to the Secretary of Interior.  Abengoa Solar is at risk of not receiving Federally backed loans because the Department of Energy has not yet consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin the review process.

You will note in previous posts that the CEC has submitted its staff assessment and EIS for Abengoa.  Apparently CEC's environmental assessment will not be accepted by the Department of Energy, which will have to conduct another review in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.  However, as noted in the previous post, the bureaucratic process is not the only threat to Abengoa.  The CEC also requested that Abengoa Solar alter its design to involve "dry-cooling," since the current design would required millions of gallons of water a year to cool the plant.

Either way, hopefully the Department of the Interior works with DoE and Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that projects based on private land get their fair shot at Federal loans and a speedy review process so that more energy companies consider development on disturbed lands as a viable option.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mojave National Preserve

A picture taken from the Granite Hills in the Mojave National Preserve this past weekend.  I plan to take a closer look at the Ridgecrest EIS and also update you on other solar projects in later posts this week.  Stay tuned.

Monday, March 29, 2010

CEC Staff Recommends Against Ridgecrest Solar Power Project

In the California Energy Commission's (CEC) Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, the CEC recommended against the project, citing the potential damage to biological resources could not be mitigated.   Solar Millenium proposed building a 250MW dry-cooled solar energy plant on a 3,995 acre right-of-way just west of Ridgecrest -- approximately 2,000 acres would be disturbed for the site construction and operation.  Overall, the CEC Staff's recommendation is a very positive sign that the certification process can account for the need to preserve wilderness and biological treasures in the Mojave Desert.  Despite the Staff's assessment, the final decision will not be made until after the CEC holds evidentiary hearings and the presiding member makes a final decision.  The staff assessment is not a final verdict.

As mentioned in an earlier post examining preliminary biological surveys of the site, the Ridgecrest project would displace at least 40 desert tortoises located on the site.  The desert tortoises on the site belong to the most threatened segment of the Mojave population--the Kramer-Fremont unit.  This genetic unit of the desert tortoise exists in the far western Mojave, which is some of the most fractured and trampled Mojave habitat.   Thus, the existence of 40 desert tortoise belonging to this unit on the proposed site is quite significant, as noted in the Environmental Impact Statement.

In addition to jeopardizing desert tortoises, the site would also infringe upon habitat for the endangered Mojave ground squirrel, and the Western burrowing owl.   Desert kit fox were also spotted on the site during the survey.   CEC Staff particularly noted that the site could interrupt a key wildlife corridor of importance to maintaining a healthy Mojave ground squirrel population.

CEC staff concluded that the Ridgecrest Solar Power project would incur damages to the Mojave Desert that could not be recovered or compensated through mitigation.  Nonetheless, the CEC staff proposed conditions for certification in the even that the CEC presiding member ultimately approves of the project.   If the project were to be approved, and the CEC proposed conditions accepted, Solar Millenium would have to fund the purchase of at least 10,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat for conservation and off-set.  This is a 5:1 "mitigation" ratio (mitigation is in quotes because the CEC staff concluded the sufficient mitigation would not be possible for this site).  In comparison, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the eastern Mojave could be subjected to a 3:1 mitigation ratio.  The land acquisition condition would be in addition to an array of other conditions, such as biologist monitoring of construction, and a raven monitoring and control plan. 

I'll keep you all posted on any further developments in the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project. If anyone has any photos of the site are and wildlife there, feel free to forward them along to me and I'll post them on the site with proper attribution.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

catching up...

I've been on the road so consequently I have not been able to post recently.  I plan to share the fruits of my travels and post some photos and experiences from a recent visit to the Mojave National Preserve.  In the meantime, I wanted to point out that the Ridgecrest solar power project Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available on the CEC website.  As noted in previous posts, the Ridgecrest project could have impacts on Mojave Desert biological resources comparable to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  I'll post a summary of the assessment and EIS this week.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

California Governor Streamlines Solar Permitting

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation (SB 34) this week that intends to speed up the certification process for solar energy proposals under consideration by the California Energy Commission (CEC).  The law allows the State to collect developer fees (at least $75,000 for each application) from companies applying for solar energy permits that would fund a dedicated staff to conduct the environmental impact review.

The law also creates the Renewable Energy Development Fee Trust, which would create a centralized process for collecting mitigation funds assessed by the CEC for specific proposals.  The State and Federal agencies would then use these funds for mitigation efforts to off-set the environmental impacts.  It is not yet clear how this mechanism fits in with the efforts of the "Renewable Energy Action Team," (subject of a previous post) which also sought to streamline the mitigation cost collection and distribution.  

According to the text of SB 34, the solar companies would no longer have to take direct action to fulfill specific mitigation conditions other than paying into the fund.  Presumably, this means that BrightSource Energy or other energy companies would not be responsible for locating and acquiring conservation land.  Instead, the State would undertake this process with funds provided by the companies.  During evidentiary hearings in January, BrightSource Energy balked at having to find and acquire land with minimal direction from CEC or BLM.  Personally, I think this part of the legislation could lead to better results, since the acquisition of conservation lands can be taken care of from a central office with an eye toward locating and setting aside land with the most biological value.  The previous process left the door open for each solar company to buy land scattered throughout the Mojave, which potentially could have drifted from the goals and standards of strategic Mojave conservation plans.

This still leaves the question of how judicious the CEC will be with future solar certifications.  The Ivanpah case is almost a done deal, but there are other sites with potentially large negative impacts on Mojave wildlife, such as the Ridgecrest Solar site.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Can the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 be Passed this Year?

Following the announcement of Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) in December, civic organizations across California have been seeking support from local city councils and members of Congress in order to pave the way for its introduction into Senate and then House debate.  Senator Feinstein indicated that she would like to see the bill (S.2921) at the Senate for a vote before the end of this year.  So how does it look for CDPA 2010?  Even though several town councils, off-road organizations, and conservation groups have joined to support the intent of the legislation--which would set aside 1.6 million acres for conservation and provide permanent off-road vehicle recreation areas--the legislation's passage may be threatened by political realities in Washington that ignore the local grassroots and civic support building behind the legislation in California.

Probably the biggest trend in American politics that could affect CDPA 2010 will be the pressure that both Democratic and Republic legislators are under to prove that they are minimizing negative impacts on the economy and are not over-bearing from the regulatory perspective.  Unfortunately, CDPA 2010 could serve as an easy proxy for a host of legislators that are dealing with a prevailing sentiment among vocal constituents that the Federal Government and Congress are "over-regulating" and constraining economic development.  This sentiment ignores the Problem of the Commons, in which scarce public resources are likely to be decimated or abused unless a higher authority is able to establish sensible levels of use and balance immediate public needs with the mandate that public resources be sustained for future generations.  This need for policy is currently being portrayed as un-American, but anyone that travels to the third world and sees what happens to a country's economy when they destroy their natural resources with short-sighted or non-existent regulation will know that promoting science-based land management is very much in America's interest.

Hurdle Number 1: Senate Committee On Energy and Natural Resources
CDPA 2010 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (hereafter, the Committee), which must "report" the bill (S.2921) to the floor for consideration by the full body of Congress, assuming the Congress can find time in the legislative calendar to debate and vote on the matter.  The Committee could also fail to consider the legislation, letting it sit and ensuring that it never comes to a vote.  If the Committee stalls for too long or fails to consider it at all, the Committee could effectively end CDPA's chances of a vote this year.  This has to be considered a real outcome for the legislation.  Some of you may remember that the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (CDPA 1994)--which converted Joshua Tree and Death Valley into National Parks, and created the Mojave National Preserve--was first introduced by Senator Feinstein in January 1993.  It was finally passed on October 31, 1994, almost two years later.

It is perilous to attempt to predict the political storms that could affect the path of CDPA 2010, but we can take the risk anyways and examine the Committee members and key issues that may impact their consideration of CDPA 2010.  Here is a sampling of the Committee members that could impact the passage of CDPA this year.

  • Chairman Bingaman: The Committee is chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).  Sen. Bingaman has sponsored a slew of legislation that promotes responsible energy policy and preservation of wilderness.  While a supporter of renewable energy, his legislation has also sponsored studies that examine the impacts of these projects on natural resources. 
  • Ranking Member: Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is the highest ranking Republican member of the committee.  She has made news recently for favoring aerial wolf hunting in her state, and proposing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Senator Murkowski could oppose CDPA 2010 on the grounds that the creation of two new national monuments could restrict energy development on that land.  However, if civic organizations and other legislators point out the CDPA 2010 also includes provisions to encourage energy development on more suitable land, and that CDPA 2010 also balances the needs of recreationists, she may not stand in the way.
  • Senator Robert Bennett:  Senator Bennett (R-UT) could also pose some opposition to the bill.  Senator Bennett has expressed opposition to the creation of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, which is criticized by some for barring future energy development.  The Monument was created by executive decision (White House) instead of being considered and approved by Congress.   He is likely to be skeptical of the legislation's intent, although perhaps supporters of CDPA 2010 could offer the legislation as a role model for Congressional involvement in land management since it balances the concerns of many stakeholders and is the product of public debate, rather than executive decision. 
  • Senator Samuel Brownback: The Republican Senator from Kansas voted against the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 in its Senate form and the House version which ultimately became law.  Although his state has not dealt with the public lands issue as deeply as Murkowski or Bennett, he is likely to be skeptical of the legislation's intent and question the need for wilderness preservation.  
  • Senator James Risch: Senator Risch (R-ID) also expressed concern over the executive branch's ability to unilaterally declare public lands as national monuments, although the Senator's letter to Secretary Salazar on the issue suggests he favors "collaborative" approaches to land management.  If Senator Risch were to oppose Senator Feinstein's legislation he would be overriding the collaboration that has already taken place among local stakeholders.
Hurdle Number 2: Consideration by the Senate
Assuming the Committee reports CDPA 2010 to the full Senate for consideration.  As you all probably know, the legislative calendar is largely controlled by the Democratic majority, but agenda contains an ambitious laundry list of legislative goals, to include immigration, jobs, banking reform, the health care debate (which is finally wrapping up), and climate (cap & trade, emissions, etc), among others.  Keep in mind that Congress is likely to adjourn before November this year, given the pressure most rank and file members will be under to get back to their home districts to campaign.   Feinstein will have to deftly maneuver to find space on the calendar so the legislation can be put to a vote.  And then timing will have to be good.  For the same issues addressed above, introducing the legislation to the floor at the wrong time could make the bill a target as a proxy for other issues, giving Senators a soap box from which they can denounce any White House executive action on land management, burgeoning government, or "over regulation" in order to score political points.

Remember that CDPA 1994 received staunch opposition from the GOP on the grounds that the Democratic majority at the time did not appropriately consider other stakeholders, and in general, sought to slow down Democratic legislative priorities.  It may sound eerily familiar, but GOP legislators stalled the legislation with multiple filibusters to slow down debate and prevent a vote.  It has been said that the CDPA 1994 as initially proposed in 1993 did not include provisions that accommodated hunters, and the legislation irritated private landowners, ranchers and off-road enthusiasts.  It appears that CDPA 2010 has front-loaded collaboration, which should hopefully head off criticism.

Hurdle Number 3: Consideration and Vote by the House
The same potential pitfalls that could stymie CDPA 2010 in the Senate could also apply in the House -- legislative agenda, potential for filibusters, and political climate.  However, the Senate would probably pose a more treacherous route than the House, since the Democratic (and thus likely favorable population) majority in the House is more likely to overcome obstacles and pass legislation.  The key to look for in House consideration would be if House members make amendments to the original legislation that could either make it untenable to the pricklier Senate.  Whatever changes the House makes will have to be approved by the Senate or they'll have to work out a compromise.  CDPA 1994 was bogged down in this process, as House member Jerry Lewis sought to prevent its passage.

Hurdle Number 4:  Presidential Signature
This is unlikely to pose a problem.  As reported in the press, the President's Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar commented favorably on Senator Feinstein's proposed legislation.  So unless Congress ends up tacking on amendments to the legislation that the President find's unreasonable, the White House almost certainly would sign the bill.  The tricky part will be getting it to the President's desk.

Again, trying to predict how specific members will vote, or which issues will affect CDPA 2010 is difficult.  But keep in mind that the issues that do impact the legislation may have little to do with the science involved in preserving the Mojave Desert, or how many stakeholders in California view the legislation as a good thing.  It will be important to highlight the legislation's balanced and collaborative approach to land management to head off legislators attempting to abuse the bill as an opportunity to grand stand on irrelevant political themes and score cheap points with Americans that have little understanding of the pressure being placed on our open space in the Mojave.

Below: Screenshot of part of the lands that would be affected by CDPA 2010.  The legislation would permanently establish key off-road vehicle recreation areas, set aside new wilderness for conservation, and establish two new national monuments.  The Mojave Trails National Monument would encompass much of the land adjacent to the historic route 66, preserving several sites of significance in America's natural heritage.

Victorville City Council Delays Consideration of CDPA 2010

The Victorville City Council once again considered whether or not to support or oppose Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010).  Once again--for the third time--the Council decided to delay taking a vote on the matter, citing the need for more information.  Several citizens present at the meeting voiced support for the legislation, and one citizen from Victorville opposed the legislation. 

Although ultimately whether or not a city council opposes or supports the bill will not directly impact the legislation, the measure of local support for the legislation will be used to indirectly bolster or erode the legislation's chances when it comes to a vote for committee debate in Washington.  For that reason, if you support the legislation you should contact your local officials and let them know. For the City of Victorville, you can obtain the councilmember's email addresses on their website.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another Nail in the Coffin for Ivanpah Valley Wildlife

Today the California Energy Commission (CEC) posted another update on its consideration of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). The CEC Staff assessed that even though the proposed solar site presents significant negative impacts to visual resources, and significant cumulative impacts to land use, and traffic, the staff deemed that the need to develop renewable energy to combat global warming was an "overriding consideration".  Note that the CEC Staff no longer considers the site to pose any significant impact to biological resources.  Per my previous post, the CEC deemed proposed mitigation conditions and BrightSource Energy's altered footprint to sufficiently off-set the likely loss of special status plants and animals.

To the CEC's credit, the document did warn other energy companies not to take Ivanpah's "overriding consideration" assessment as a condition that would apply to other solar projects.  The CEC cited other proposed industrial and commercial development in the Ivanpah valley as one reason why an override was approved for ISEGS.   As I have mentioned in previous posts, this reasoning appears to ignore or accept the gradual degradation of Mojave Desert wilderness.  If one of the primary reasons that Ivanpah is approved is that the site is only one of many dominoes falling in the area, it calls into question the efficacy and sincerity of 1.) assessing cumulative impacts during the certification process and 2.) the ability of either State or Federal agencies to actually encourage private developers to consider less damaging alternative sites.   Even though BrightSource is likely to have a high tab for mitigation conditions (they are required to purchase thousands of acres of conservation land, for example), the certification process could have addressed alternative sites much sooner, which could have resulted in a better location or configuration-- saving BrightSource money, and sparing dwindling Mojave Desert wildlife and open space.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CEC Staff Delivers Favorable Assessment of Mitigated Ivanpah Proposal

According to an addendum to the California Energy Commission's (CEC) Draft Environmental Impact Statement for BrightSource Energy's proposed solar site in Ivanpah,  CEC staff declared that the altered site proposal to avoid special status plants (see previous post) fully compensates for damage to biological resources.  The staff previously concluded that the Ivanpah proposal did not fully account for the harm it would cause to an array of desert wildlife, to include the rare Rusby's Desert Mallow, Mojave milkweed, desert tortoises,  and potentially bighorn sheep.  The addendum does concede, however, that "on-site" mitigation for special status plants -- which would involve leaving some plants located on the site intact and keeping solar structures away from them--would likely fail and result in the loss of many of the protected plants.

The significance of the updated CEC assessment is that BrightSource's altered proposal is a step closer to being approved since the CEC staff is satisfied that its originally proposed conditions (acquiring desert tortoise mitigation land, raven management, etc) combined with the new site proposal that attempts to accomodate special status plants would reduce the harm done to the Mojave Desert to "insignificant" levels.  It seems unlikely that the CEC "presiding member"--who will make the final determination on the future of Ivanpah and the conditions to which BrightSource Energy must adhere--would deny certification to Ivanpah.   However, if the presiding member retains the proposed conditions, to include the requirement that BrightSource purchase and conserve over 8000 acres of desert to off-set harm to desert tortoises (see previous post), then the decision would at least send a message to prospective energy companies to be more judicious and wise in their siting decisions.

Abengoa Solar Draft Environmental Impact Statement Released

The California Energy Commission (CEC) released the Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SA/DEIS) this week for the Abengoa Solar Project.  Overall the assessment lines up with what was a relatively good site location by Abengoa Solar--disturbed agricultural land. The mitigation plan calls for roughly 120 acres of land to be purchased and set aside for conservation, which is far less than the thousands of acres required to mitigate the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the eastern Mojave Desert.  Biological surveys of the site only spotted one desert tortoise, but they did identify several species of special status birds, such as the western burrowing owl and LeConte's thrasher.

Of more concern to the State of California, however, is the projects proposed pumping of over 2,000 acre-feet of water per year to cool the plant, which amounts to over 700 million gallons of water a year (see previous post). Interestingly, the CEC determined that the pumping of ground water at such levels did not violate State or Federal environmental policy, but it did run contrary to the State's water policy.  The CEC proposed Abengoa Solar alter its design or cooling process or institute unspecified water conservation measures.  The CEC did not specify, so I assume there will be more guidance on this matter after the CEC consults with the applicant.

If the Abengoa Solar project does proceed with a "wet-cooling" design, the site could include large evaporation ponds, where the used water would be dumped.  This could harm biological resources since the water could be contaminated with chromium or selenium, and endanger birds that would be attracted to the water source.  Even if the water is properly purified, it would be a source of water for ravens, which would than prey upon nearby tortoises.

The ideal outcome of the CEC's review of Abengoa would be to applaud the company for choosing a nearly ideal site--disturbed land--but require the company to use dry cooling, sparing hundreds of millions of gallons of precious desert groundwater from being cycled through an industrial plant and then left to evaporate in the desert heat and potentially poison wildlife.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Renewable Energy Action Team: Good Intentions but How Soon?

The recently published Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Blythe Solar project provides some insight to the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT), which is the inter-agency task force addressing expedited renewable energy permitting process and environmental mitigation.   The REAT consists of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), and the California Energy Commission (CEC).  If this inter-agency team can implement its policy tools quickly enough, it could have a positive effect on efforts to mitigate damage done by industrial-scale energy development in the desert, but the current proposed schedule for REAT calls this into question.

In order to achieve the goal of expedited renewable energy permitting while preserving sensitive habitat and species in California's deserts, the REAT plans to produce a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).  According to the CEC Staff Assessment, the DRECP would be a science-based process for reviewing and permitting renewable energy projects in the desert, and would provide a framework for implementing regionally coordinated land acquisition and mitigation to off-set the negative affects of the renewable energy rush on desert biological resources.

According to the CEC, the REAT plans to have a streamlined mitigation mechanism in place by the end of 2010.  As evidenced during the CEC hearings for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), the CEC's proposed mitigation conditions for solar energy projects currently under review could eventually fall under the future REAT mechanism, if it is instituted in time.   In the meantime, it is up to the renewable energy companies to independently identify and purchase mitigation lands, which could result in a patchwork of mitigation efforts that could prove more effective if they were consolidated under REAT and focused on acquiring high quality or most sensitive habitat.

The CEC also noted that the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is not expected to be completed until 2012.  Given the rush of renewable energy applications, and the immense pressure the developers and the CEC are under to have the projects break ground by the end of 2010 in order to qualify for Federal government financial backing (read about the here), I wonder if by 2012 enough of the Mojave Desert will have been industrialized to require much more drastic conservation measures than trying to squeeze in a few more industrial scale projects.    If wise decisions are not made for the current slate of proposed solar energy projects, the threat to the Mojave Desert ecosystem and species may reach a point by 2012 that habitat fragmentation, failed tortoise tanslocations, and negative impacts on State waters and sensitive plant species will incur enough harm by 2012 resulting in:
1.) the mitigation requirements for energy projects in 2012 will have to account for a more dire ecological situation and thus be more expensive for energy companies,
2.) a shortage of good quality mitigation lands available for conservation, 
3.) an increase in the number of sensitive species needing protection and mitigation as a result of a deterioration in overall habitat connectivity and quality throughout the State.

All the more reason for the CEC and REAT partners to be extra-judicious at this stage of the project, so that renewable energy siting is carried out with an eye toward a sustainable and healthy renewable energy industry and a sustainable and healthy Mojave Desert.

There are other legal and policy considerations that currently complicate the efforts by various agencies involved in the permitting process to conserve mitigation lands.  For example, the REAT partners are currently looking for a way to meet a condition set forth by the CEC and DFG (both are State of California entities) that mitigation lands acquired by energy companies to off-set damages must be preserved in perpetuity.   This condition set forth by the State creates difficulties for BLM, which cannot hold land for conservation in perpetuity under existing rules since BLM lands must also be available for other public and economic uses.    The REAT partners are considering the feasibility of identifying privately held lands within existing BLM Desert Wildlife Management Areas--which have already been set aside for conservation--that could be acquired for mitigation purposes and also meet the State's "in-perpetuity" requirement.  In addition to this tool, the REAT may also consider conservation easements and "right of way exclusion" zones that would provide permanent protection for acquired mitigation land placed under BLM management.

CEC Assesses Massive Colorado Desert Solar Project

The California Energy Commission (CEC) recently released it's draft Staff Assessment and Environmental Impact Statement for the Blythe Solar project, an industrial-scale site that would disturb approximately 7,030 acres of Colorado Desert.  The site is just west of Blythe and would sit in the middle of the Palo Verde Mesa next to the McCoy Mountains.   In summary,  the environmental impact statement points out that the most significant impacts of the site would be the loss of desert washes--which are important to the maintenance and sustainability of desert aquifers--and the loss of desert tortoise and Mojave Desert fringe-toed lizard habitat.

The up-side is that the plant is near populated and agricultural areas, reducing its impact on uninterrupted wilderness, and would produce up to 1000MW of renewable energy once all four proposed portions of the site are online.  However, the substation that would be required would decimate dozens of acres of dune habitat, on which 57 Mojave Desert fringe-toed lizards were spotted during surveys in 2009.   The site also encompasses approximately 175 acres of a sensitive habitat community called "desert dry wash woodland", which provides a haven for several species, to include coyote, kit fox, and bobcat.

During a survey in 2009 only one active desert tortoise was identified in the disturbance area, and one burrowing owl, although the site contains dozens of burrows.  Furthermore, as a commenter on this blog recently noted, wildlife surveys can be imperfect and can miss a substantial portion of a site's inhabitants based on timing, season, etc.  The CEC determined that the site contained low to moderate quality desert tortoise habitat, and proposed a 1:1 mitigation ration, which would require the company to purchase approximately 7,000 acres of off-set conservation land.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival

I just finished watching the USGS-sponsored desert tortoise documentary titled "The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival," which I highlighted in my last post.  It's definitely worth downloading or viewing online if you want to learn more about the science behind the recovery efforts, and the array of threats that the tortoises face.   You can check it out at the USGS website.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Desert Tortoise Documentary

The US Geological Survey just released a documentary on the Desert Tortoise and the Federal Government's efforts to study its status and factors affecting its survival in the Mojave Desert. The documentary--titled "The Heat is On: Desert Tortoise and Survival"-- notes the importance of the Desert Tortoise to the entire Mojave ecosystem.  Although the website is a bit slow (I wish they would post it on youtube!) you can also download the movie file separately or read the transcript at this site here or here.  On the second link in the previous sentence there is an option on the right side of the page to download the full movie or transcript.

I've started the full download, but I have only watched the first quarter of it online so far.  What I can say so far is that I do appreciate hearing from the field experts working to understand and, ultimately, to save the desert tortoise.  Kudos to the USGS for reaching out to the public and trying to educate us about the plight of this species and America's efforts to preserve it for future generations.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rainy Winter Could Reveal Value of Proposed Solar Sites

Defenders of Widlife, which is an intervenor in the proposed Calico Solar project east of Barstow, requested that Calico Solar LLC conduct another review of its proposed site for special status plants this year.  Defenders of Wildlife noted that the 2007 review of biological resources did not identify any rare plants but precipitation that year was also well below normal.  Precipitation in 2008 rose to 88% of normal, and a review of the site in that year did identify special status plants.  Defenders of Widlife highlights an important and time sensitive opportunity to conduct more accurate surveys of proposed solar sites this year since the Mojave Desert received approximately 200% of its normal precipitation this year.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Any Ornithologists in the House?

So I have some pictures from a past trip to the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness Area and I have been unable to identify with any certainty three birds of which I was able to snap photos.  If you have any guesses as to their identity feel free to post a comment:

Unidentified bird #1 (which I think may be a rock wren)


Unidentified Bird #2 (which I think may be a loggerhead shrike, but I'm not sure):


Unidentified Bird 3 (I have no idea what this could be):

I'm an avid wildlife enthusiast, but I have much to learn, so please feel free to share your insight!

UK Travel Article Featuring the Mojave

The Guardian, a UK newspaper, featured a travel article highlighting the wonder of the Mojave Desert:

From The Guardian

A murder is about to happen. Fifteen metres away from us, beside a bullet-ridden oil can, a coyote sniffs the air. My daughters stop the Indian Runner jog they have recently developed across the acres of unfenced Mojave desert, and watch. The victim-to-be, a clueless jackrabbit, sits between us and the coyote, among a family of quail, who are scrabbling for insects under a scrubby creosote bush.
"Stay still," I murmur, grappling in my pocket. I pull out my Swiss Army knife, and open it up. I know that coyotes rarely attack but best to be prepared.

"That's the corkscrew bit, Mum," my seven-year-old, Ruby, says.
"It's the only one I can do with my nails," I whisper.

Luckily for me, the wild dog decides none of us, not even the jackrabbit, is worth bothering about and trots off towards the San Gorgonio mountains 60 miles to the west, an image straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Eyes bright with the drama of the encounter, the girls run off, whooping. "Watch out for rattlesnakes," I shout, enjoying the novelty of saying the phrase as much as they do hearing it.

With hazards like these, I had to think long and hard before taking up a friend's offer to stay in her three-roomed cabin in this remote area of the southern Californian desert. "What if the kids get bitten by a scorpion/snake/spider?" our friends with children asked. "What on earth is there for them to do out there, anyway?"

It's not that I didn't consider all this – and indeed, add serial killers to the list. I had just reached a point where I couldn't take one more holiday where my husband and I had to shout at our pent-up city kids to stop disturbing the gîte owners next door, or queue for an hour to feed a lamb, or drive six hours to a rural Devon campsite to find the group next to us erecting a 15ft pirate flag and unloading a sound system. Remoteness, nature and relaxation were what we craved. The kind of American wilderness holiday we took before kids, that let us wind down properly. A place where they could let off steam without prompting someone to ask, as our elderly neighbour did recently, if we had "thought about getting Supernanny in".
Now, as I watch the girls running ahead, their hair thick with desert dust, I realise something miraculous has happened. Not only is this turning out to be the most relaxing holiday we've ever had, the girls, who a week ago screamed if they saw a spider in the bath, are currently hunting for tarantulas.
For a place with a name so evocative of images of Americana, Wonder Valley is largely undiscovered. Those who live here cherish its remoteness: the artists, Hollywood stars, retirees, LA city weekenders – and rumoured crystal meth runners – who hide out in cabins along its 830 miles of dirt roads. Not that Wonder Valley is concealed geographically; 1.4 million visitors stop just a few miles away each year to hike and climb in Joshua Tree national park, yet few explore an area that, from the highway, simply looks like a flat, arid expanse.

Come nightfall, however, and the secretive community reveals itself, the black desert strung with the soft glow of cabin lights. To the north, a marine base with 25,000 inhabitants shines like a space ship. "At least the marines will keep the serial killers away," my husband teases on our first night, as I nervously stick in earplugs to drown out the oddly overwhelming sound of complete silence.

As usual, we have arrived armed with a list of ways to entertain the kids. There is a children's museum in Palm Springs, an hour's drive away; hotels where we can swim; perhaps some horse riding. Then, on the first morning, we open the cabin door.

Sunshine explodes in. It takes a minute for our eyes to adjust to what we are seeing. Nothing. Outside, there is absolutely nothing. Between us and the Sheephole mountains, 20 miles off to the east, there are no houses, no trees, just sand dotted with creosote bushes and the odd homestead cabin, most of them derelict.

"Wow. Can we play out there?" my six-year-old, Eve, asks.

Can she? I try to hold my nerve. There's no point bringing them out here, I reason, if I apply my city-mother neurosis about dangerous-looking dogs and fast traffic. So I let them go, with warnings about not poking in the woodpile or under rocks, and idly start a 1,000-piece jigsaw I find in a cupboard, anxiously popping my head out the door every five minutes.

"Stop shouting!" I call at one point when they run past playing a game called "pretend to find a rattlesnake".

"Why – who's going to hear them?" my husband asks, opening a book.
Fair point. Our nearest neighbour is three miles away. Out here no one can hear them scream.
It turns out it is an illusion that there is nothing in the desert. We keep meaning to leave the cabin, we really do. But after three days, the car is still where we parked it the first night, I have finished my jigsaw, my husband has read his book. And the kids are still outside.

Freed from the restrictions of city living, they have undergone a strange transformation. They have taken to wearing Little-House-on-the-Prairie-meets-disco outfits that incorporate snow boots (in case of scorpions/snakes/spiders, they inform us wisely), long skirts, neon sunglasses and shiny cardigans. They have also transmogrified into two elderly American ladies called Lucinda and Amy, who live out the back in a newly constructed "clubhouse" made from rusted sun chairs, the bullet-ridden oil can and "cakes" made from the white quartz we find scattered everywhere.
"Hey, honeybunch," comes a call. It's "Lucinda", waving as she limps past on a stick.
The desert reveals itself to be a gold mine for their den. Each day we hike across the unfenced homesteads, donated in the 1930s to families prepared to work the land, but now mostly derelict. Old clothes, rusty cans and broken appliances litter their fronts. A forgotten plastic Christmas tree makes the girls' day. They drag it back to their den between them. We stop on the way when "Amy" spots coyote prints in the sand, and follows them. It wouldn't surprise me if she were skinning rabbits in a week's time.

Occasionally, we see another human: a lone jogger, or some desert riders on quad bikes. But it quickly becomes apparent that Wonder Valley residents respect each other's desire for isolation. The drivers of the pick-up trucks that pass down our dirt road once an hour keep their gazes steadily ahead, behind baseball hats and shades.

Although the days are relaxing, I wonder how the girls will feel about the dark, silent evenings out here. Back home, our terraced house is a fairyland of night-lights, the girls' bedroom doors wedged to very specific angles, fears of burglars regularly used as an excuse for not going to sleep. But it appears that facing real dangers has eliminated imagined ones. As each day ends, they lie on the porch doing feverish paintings of the sunsets that break above our heads in great scarlet and purple streaks. They take my iPhone outside and dance to Primal Scream, and search a starry sky for the plough. Their normal bedtime DVDs lie abandoned. Instead, they play dominoes by the fire before collapsing in black bedrooms where they sleep till late the next morning.

When the food starts to run out, we force ourselves to finally leave the cabin. The nearest town is Twentynine Palms, so we head there, stopping off to meet Jeff Hafler along the way. Jeff and his partner, artist Mikal Winn, own Moon Way Lodge, a two-bedroom B&B on a 10-acre patch hidden up another dirt road, as well as the on-site Beauty Bubble Hair Salon and Museum, which features 2,000 retro hairstyling objects.

"Welcome to the desert!" Jeff exclaims cheerfully. Their five-year-old son, Cash, whips the girls off in his electric car through mesquite and jojoba bushes to see his rabbits, while Jeff shows us round.
Although Moon Way Lodge wasn't built solely for families – indeed, its cool thrift-shop chic interiors are as likely to appear in style magazines and be used by movie stars on location – it gives parents the opportunity to enjoy the luxury of a solar-heated swimming pool, neighbours, complimentary breakfast and a loan of Cash's swings and slide. "I always say it's like sitting at the ocean," Jeff says, as we gawp at the guests' fire pit, which overlooks a 50-mile flat empty expanse of desert. "Cash lives here," the girls say astonished, running up to us. "He really lives here."

Inspired by Jeff and Mikal's decor, we spend the afternoon thrift-store shopping in Twentynine Palms. Unlike UK charity shops, these are sprawling yards of clothes, furniture, ornaments and household items, and keep the girls engrossed for an hour. They snap up Mexican lace dresses for a dollar and toys for a few cents. I buy presents to take home: a 50s cook's prayer wall hanging, and a plate covered in cacti and roadrunners.

We have to think twice about taking our wild desert children into a restaurant after days without human contact, but after vigorous hairbrushing, they are decent enough to avoid ejection from the 29 Palms Inn, which sits under shaggy fan palms in a natural oasis. It's the rumoured weekend hideaway of many an A-list rock star and actor. We're here for the food, however, much of which is grown in the inn's own garden.

The girls eat burgers while we tuck in to shrimp tacos with fresh salsa, all for $30, then browse the walls which display work by the town's numerous artists. I've already salivated over a diamanté jackrabbit by Mikal, that we passed in the 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery earlier, so my willpower is low. Our lunch bill jumps significantly when I add a Home Sweet Home sign made by Christy Anderson from cut-up US state licence plates.

Back in the glorious quiet of the cabin, we make no effort to leave till almost the end of the week. Under a spidery ocotillo cactus, the girls build a fairy garden from pebbles painted with glittery nail varnish; they act out a wedding in their Mexican dresses; and stage complex musical productions that mix Bollywood, High School Musical and their school nativity play. Finally, we persuade them out to Joshua Tree national park to view the yucca palms almost unique to the high desert here, named by Mormon settlers after the biblical Joshua, arms raised in prayer to God to stop the sun setting.
Wistfully, my husband and I recall previous national park trips, when we headed off into the wilderness with our tent. A one-mile trail packed with tourist groups seems a shoddy replacement. The girls do us proud, though. They scramble up the over-large boulders with exciting names like "Skull Rock" and run amok among cacti.

It is sunset when I notice something strange. "Lucinda" is standing stock still, watching the beseeching arms of a thousand Joshua Trees turn black against a reddening sky. I wonder what she is thinking. Later, before bed, I finally attempt to wash a week's worth of stubborn desert dust out of her hair. Bracing myself for the usual screaming about shampoo, I realise she is standing quietly in the shower, her lips tightly held shut.
"What are you doing?" I ask.

"I've decided I'm not going to make a fuss about silly things any more," she says. "I'm going to grow up."

We lock the gate reluctantly behind us the next morning, and head off, each of us taking a little piece of desert calm with us, Supernanny apparently no longer required.

Getting there
Netflights has flights from London to Los Angeles from around £390 rtn inc taxes. Twentynine Palms is about three hours' drive from LA. Alamo offers car hire from LA airport from around £10 a day.

Where to stay
A number of companies rent cabins in Wonder Valley, from basic two-room restored homesteads to artists' hideaways and larger houses with swimming pools. Joshua Desert Retreats (+1 310 558 5544) has properties near Twentynine Palms, from $900 a week or $500 for three nights (sleeping from three to 14; prices vary little irrespective of size). Moon Way Lodge (+1 760 835 9369) doubles from $120 B&B.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Desert Tortoise Translocation Effectiveness Called Into Question

According to research presented at the Desert Tortoise Symposium,  and reviewed in local press, desert tortoise translocation may not be an effective method of preserving desert tortoise populations.  Solar energy projects proposed for vast tracts of land in the Mojave Desert would involve relocating tortoises from their burrows on proposed sites to conservation land purchased by the solar companies.  The study presented at the Desert Tortoise Symposium, however, indicates that among 158 desert tortoises relocated from Fort Irwin nearly two years ago, 44 percent died and 20 tortoises were not located.  Many of the dead tortoises were killed by coyotes.  Of course, "green energy" firms like BrightSoure Energy and Solar Millennium balk at mitigation costs imposed by the California Energy Commission (CEC) in order to off-set their impact on desert tortoise and other sensitive species.  Perhaps the CEC should take into consideration the failure rate in desert tortoise relocation and adjust the mitigation program appropriately.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ridgecrest Solar Project: Alternative Site Consideration Highlights Policy Deficiency

Solar Millenium's proposed Ridgecrest Solar Project considered alternative sites near Boron and California City that may have less overall impact on the Mojave Desert's biological resources since they are closer to industrialized or built-up areas, but determined that the acreage was insufficient or that it could not amass enough acreage due to the company's own arbitrary preference in land acquisition and unspecified guidance from the California Energy Commission (CEC) guidelines.  Data submitted by Solar Millenium indicates that the company's alternative site consideration seems shallow and suggests the company is not serious about smart site location.  Sadly, for reasons previously mentioned on this blog, the CEC seems content to move forward with consideration of the company's proposed site, even though it is home to special status wildlife, instead of devoting more serious investigation to the alternative sites. 

Here is the response from Solar Millenium, which suggests it did not even look for sites involving more than three landowners, and supports its decision citing "CEC guidance":

"The ease and certainty of establishing site control is a critical component of determining whether to proceed with a large-scale solar thermal project. Although different applicants may have different views regarding how many landowners is “too many” for site control purposes, the Applicant determined, based on CEC guidance, that the appropriate maximum number of landowners is three."

Two alternative sites highlighted by Solar Millenium deserve extra consideration by the company and the CEC--Boron and California City--since they could potentially reduce the impact on the Mojave Desert.  According to data submitted by Solar Millenium, the alternative sites at Boron and California City would have required up to 20 miles of new transmission lines to tie into the power grid, but the sites are located near major roads and extra transmission lines could parallel what is already disturbed land.   While the Boron site technically falls within Desert Tortoise critical habitat, it is on the edge of such designated territory and would be immediately adjacent to the US Borax mine.  This would suggest that the Boron alternative site may not have as dense a desert tortoise population as exists on the current proposed site near Ridgecrest.  The Ridgecrest location hosts at least 50 desert tortoise, in addition to several other sensitive species.  The California City site is also located near disturbed land and just north of Highway 58.

The CEC should not be dissuading solar companies from aggregating more disturbed land--no matter how many owners--since doing so could result in pushing development to less valuable habitat.  The California City and Boron sites would both involve three landowners, barely meeting CEC's apparent guidance to Solar Millenium, suggesting the company probably did not even look for additional land next to these sites to give them sufficient acreage for development since doing so would involve surpassing the three landowner limit.  While fewer landowners probably simplifies the certification process, and certainly Solar Millenium's own development, this guidelines reduces the likelihood that solar companies will develop on disturbed land since this would complicate efforts to aggregate enough acres to make it economical for development.  This leaves the large BLM-managed parcels as a juicy target for industrial scale solar development.

The Ridgecrest Solar Project helps to illuminate how the CEC's process and guidelines may contribute to poor solar siting decisions.  This compounds ineffective policy from Washington, which imposed an arbitrary deadline demanding that solar companies break ground before the end of 2010 in order to qualify for federal aid.  Perhaps CEC guidelines that encouraged the aggregation of disturbed land, and the extension of the federal funding deadlines could result in thousands of acres of prime Mojave Desert habitat from being mowed down.   As the process currently stands, there does not appear to be any significant meaning or intent in the CEC's request for alternative site consideration, and it seems to convey a superficial sense of cost-benefit analysis to justify what is may end up being poor management of public lands.

Below is a screen shot of the Boron alternative location (outlined in red) adjacent to the US Borax mine.

Victorville City Council Delays Vote on Desert Protection Act

Victorville Mayor Rudy Cabriales once again decided to delay Victorville City Council's consideration of supporting or opposing the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, according to the minutes from the 2 March meeting.  The Council will now consider the legislation again during its 16 March meeting.  According to the minutes, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Rothschild and Councilmember McEachron had "comments" on the legislation but the notes did not specify.  For any readers of this blog that were able to attend, feel free to share with us what comments were made by those Coucilmembers.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

Kelso Dunes practically materialized out of thin air, but only because wind currents and mountain formations formed a perfect match and dumped find sand adrift in the atmosphere onto the creosote shrub land now awash in sand dunes.  If we continue to constrict the Mojave Desert with subdivisions and industrial development, these phenomenon could cease to exist.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Boxer and McKeon to Sell BLM Lands Near Victorville

Legislation introduced by Congressman Howard McKeon in December and recently supported by Senator Barbara Boxer would resolve a longstanding dispute between CEMEX and the City of Santa Clarita, which opposed a 1990 contract sponsored by BLM granting CEMEX rights to extract sand and gravel from Soledad Canyon.   In order to resolve the dispute, the legislators propose selling BLM lands--already on the Bureau's "disposal list"--in the vicinity of Victorville and use the proceeds to compensate CEMEX.  The City of Victorville and San Bernardino County would have first rights to purchase the land.

Although Soledad Canyon will be spared, the lands on BLM's disposal list amount to approximately 10,500 acres, with the bulk of those lands located just south and east of the Mojave Monkeyflower Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).  This general area was also targeted by the Victorville City Council for expansion of the City's boundaries (see previous post).  Victorville's proposed expansion would have sought added residential areas, although San Bernardino County voiced opposition to aspects of the expansion, citing mineral resources in the adjacent BLM lands.  The offer of BLM lands for sale could expedite development in the area and facilitate either industrial or residential expansion.

The map below, which is also available on Santa Clarita's website,  depicts the areas for sale (outlined in blue, green and gold), and the Monkeyflower ACEC (in red).

BLM Desert District Advisory Council Seats Open

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) California Desert District is soliciting nominations for five Southern Californians to serve on its District Advisory Council for the 2010-2012 three-year term, which would begin immediately upon confirmation by the Secretary of Interior.

The five positions to be filled include one representative each for renewable resources, environmental protection, elected official, and two representatives for public-at-large.

Anyone can nominate qualified persons in any of these categories. Nominations must be submitted by close of business Friday, April 21, 2010, to the California Desert District Manager, Bureau of Land Management, California Desert District Office, 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553.

Each nomination must include the name of the nominee, work and home addresses and telephone numbers, a biographical sketch including the nominee’s work, applicable outside interests, and public service records. The nominee also must specify the category of interest he or she is best qualified to represent and offer advice and counsel to the BLM.

All nominations must include letters of reference from represented interests, organizations or elected officials. Nominees will be evaluated based on their education, training, and knowledge of BLM, the California Desert District, and the issues involving BLM-administered public lands within Southern California.

BLM also tries to balance the council geographically, recommending appointment of qualified representatives from areas throughout the California Desert District. The district covers portions of nine counties, and includes 10.8 million acres of public land in the California Desert Conservation Area and 300,000 acres of scattered parcels in San Diego, western Riverside, western San Bernardino, Orange, and Los Angeles counties.

Council members are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, and serve without compensation except for reimbursement of travel expenditures incurred in the course of their duties. Council members serve a three-year term and may be nominated for reappointment to serve a second three-year term.

Nomination forms can be found at:  For more information or to request a nomination form, please contact David Briery at (951) 697-5220 or

Monday, March 1, 2010

Joshua Tree Hugger?

Reviewing the draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the proposed 1,555 acre "Hacienda at Fairview Valley" residential project (for more info, see my previous post), a Joshua Tree survey identified at least 3,891 Joshua Trees on the proposed site.  County regulations would require the developer to attempt to avoid impacts to Joshua trees and preserve in-place to the farthest extent possible in order to achieve a “design of excellence.”  If the project progresses toward construction, the developer would have to submit a Joshua Tree plan that identifies specific trees to be transplanted or stockpiled for later transplantation or future adoption.  

The survey approximated that 38% of the trees on the site would be "transferable,"  implying that the rest would likely be cut down and discarded.  You can download the full report on the website of San Bernardino County's Land Use Services Department in the list of EIRs.  Scroll down to the Hacienda project for the "Joshua Tree Survey Report and Management Plan."  In terms of Mojave Desert habitat, I'm not sure how prevalent Joshua Tree woodland is, especially since a good portion of woodland likely existed in the higher elevation areas surrounding the San Bernardino and Los Angeles mountains.  Since this area is being squeezed by population growth, I am curious to know if woodland regions of the Mojave Desert are particularly imperiled compared to other habitat types, such as creosote scrub areas.

Above: Designed by Mother Nature to tolerate years of drought and extreme temperatures, but the Joshua Tree will be no match for a proposed massive residential development in Apple Valley

Below: A screenshot of the Hacienda at Fairview Valley Joshua Tree density report.  Red and yellows are higher desnity and green is lower density Joshua Tree woodland.